That Africa’s GDP growth has been both unprecedented and impressive is unequivocal. However, the impact of growth on the livelihoods of majority of Africans is anything but unequivocal. Are Africa’s children better fed, healthier and in school?
Africa’s growth in the past two decades has not been translated into tangible or measurable wellbeing gains by ordinary folk. Growth remains stuck at the top. Moreover, the sectors that have contributed significantly to Africa’s soaring GDP – telecommunications, insurance, banking, transportation, insurance, services, extractives – demand the least of the abundance of semi-skilled labor on the continent.
Africa’s agriculture and its rural economy, which could provide jobs to hundreds of millions is in precipitous decline along with the rural economy that has been deprived of investments in vital social infrastructure; especially water, health and education. Furthermore, China’s stranglehold on manufacturing has precipitated an inexorable trend of de-industrialization.
It is hardly surprising that unemployment, especially among Africa’s youth is over 50 percent. The gains on maternal and infant survival are miniscule. Millions of African children who survive beyond their fifth birthday are stunted and have to live with the lifetime consequences of cognitive impairment. Compared with normal children, stunted children: score 7 percent lower on math tests; are 19 percent less likely to read a simple sentence at age 8, and 12 percent less likely to write a simple sentence; and, are 13 percent less likely to be in the appropriate grade for their age at school.
A report just released by the World Bank, Poverty in Rising Africa, shows that the rate of poverty reduction in Africa is significantly slower compared to other developing regions. According to the report the number of Africa’s poor people increased from 288 million in 1990 to 389 million in 2012. This is despite the fact that the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has declined from 57 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2012.
But the report is not just about Africa’s material poverty. The report reveals a worrying poverty of reliable data to track Africa’s economic progress. Africa’s poverty rates are derived from surveys that use old, unreliable measures of production and consumption. An average of 4 consumption surveys per country were conducted in Africa between 1990 and 2012. About one survey was conducted every 3 years in the rest of the world between 1990 and 2012.
In his book, Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it, Morten Jerven offers an assessment of the inaccuracy of development statistics and the policy implications of data problems. Understanding and addressing poverty on the continent is more complicated because country level statistics are limited and of poor quality.
However, the solution to Africa’s poor numbers is not simply more funding for data collection. There is need to enhance the legitimacy of wide range data providers, acknowledging their roles and enabling them to collect reliable data for planning and tracking of development progress.